If you or someone you love is experiencing age-related memory loss, dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, you might be curious about ways you can help. In addition to medications or therapies recommended by your neurologist or another medical provider, finding ways to stay active and engage with others can help you adjust to memory changes, maintain your cognitive function and connect with others for longer. Anjali Patel, DO, a neurologist with Atlantic Health System, has advice on how to incorporate alternative therapies for memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease into your lifestyle.
One of the most significant benefits of alternative therapies for dementia is that many of the options involve working with friends and loved ones to accomplish a shared goal. Along with family history, a poor diet and limited physical activity, a lack of social engagement can be a significant risk factor for developing dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Patel stresses that while it’s impossible to control someone’s genetic risk for developing memory loss, people can improve their eating habits, how often they exercise and interact with the world and people around them. She says research has shown that people who struggle with hearing and vision loss are more susceptible to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, which is why staying engaged is so important.
“Reducing social isolation and spending time with others can have a positive effect on people struggling with cognitive decline,” says Dr. Patel. “Many alternative therapies, such as art, music and movement, can be a great help and so much can be done in the comfort of your own home.”
Creating something beautiful or meaningful can add value to anyone’s time, especially someone affected by memory loss. Dr. Patel suggests starting with simple art activities such as painting, creating a collage or scrapbooking. Your loved one might need guidance to get started, but it’s a great opportunity for them to exercise independence and creativity. Just be sure that the supplies you offer are safe for independent use.
“Working on a photo album or scrapbook together can be a great way to connect with someone who has dementia,” says Dr. Patel. “Discussing milestones or childhood memories, which might be clearer to them, can be a great way for them to share their personal history and foster a connection that doesn’t leave them feeling confused or agitated.”
Dr. Patel explains that we use different parts of our brains when listening to music. The left hemisphere interprets lyrics and words, while the right hemisphere processes a song’s musical and instrumental sounds. In addition, listening to music can trigger emotions and the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Some small research studies have shown that music can improve cognition, as well as mood and behaviors.
“Music can be very beneficial, and it may have a lifelong protective effect on the brain,” says Dr. Patel. “There’s some evidence that the part of your brain involved in learning to play an instrument or read music remains intact, even when faced with memory loss.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, even someone with advanced memory loss may remember lyrics from songs that were popular when they were young. Music can also have a calming effect if someone becomes agitated easily. Atlantic Health System is developing a music program for patients with memory loss, and the group music therapy sessions will be available in early 2024.
Exercise and Dance
Physical activity at any age is beneficial and Dr. Patel recommends using a wide range of activities for light cardiovascular exercise several times each week. She explains that aerobic exercise can help improve cardiovascular health, strengthen muscles and help with gait training, which is critical to fall prevention. Even something as simple as lifting cans of soup or using light resistance bands while seated can help strengthen muscles and boost circulation.
“Dancing can be a great way to stay active and, because it involves the use of music, it can be very engaging for someone with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. Patel. “Learning a few new dance steps or remembering old ones can be beneficial because a mental challenge is always good.”
Whether it’s art, music, physical movement or even spending time with a pet, many alternative therapies give people dealing with memory changes or cognitive decline a chance to connect with their memories, loved ones and caregivers. Dr. Patel says that whatever the chosen path, the main goal should be to enhance and maintain current cognitive abilities while relaxing and having fun.
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